In Texas, it never really smells like fall. In the most real sense, fall requires things to slowly turn brown, die and decay, and though that happens here, it’s hardly gradual. It goes from summer to winter almost instantly. October here means 75 degrees and breezy with cooler nights and crisp mornings, but it’s not fall. And as much as I love Austin, in just about every single way, I miss the smell. I miss the very real chill in the air, one of impending winter doom, one that makes you take advantage of every single gorgeous day because there are not many left. It is during this season that I think the most about home, about my parents, the house I grew up in, and the predictably unpredictable change that would come every September.
So, imagine my surprise when a quick trip home this past weekend offered me just the opposite. Instead of those chilly, jacket-worthy nights, my perpetual state of “hot,” one that my body is all-too-accustomed to now, continued. No jackets needed, no color in the trees, barely a crunch under my feet on the Cincinnati sidewalks. My romantic notion of an early fall getaway was crushed by the realization that I had arrived a few weeks too early.
Fortunately, unlike the seasons, my parents’ distinctive ways of welcoming me home are far more predictable.
This time, it was my dad who picked us up. My mom is usually on airport duty, anxious to get me in the car and take me straight home, where she will feed me gummy bears and leftover lasagna and cover me with blankets and pillows until I’m so comfortable I pass out. In the morning we talk about everything, it’s nonstop really, and she opens up her enormous closet to thousands of new outfit options that make me squeal with delight.
Dad has a different routine.
Marc and I arrive at the Cincy-tucky airport late– the kind of late that leaves sleepy passengers staring at the baggage claim trolley like they’re waiting for their child to be born. We are antsy and tired and hungry, the toddler trifecta, and wait for 30 minutes as my dad circles the airport. When we finally make it to the curb to meet his red Jeep, my dad is sharply dressed in a sport coat and jeans, ready with one of his huge, warm hugs and a cooler full of ice cold beverages in the back. I’m pretty sure it’s been years since he’s stayed up this late.
He doesn’t tell me what meal is waiting for us at the house, but I can tell he’s excited. Like me, he likes preparing surprises almost as much as he likes experiencing them himself.
The typical Mark Franke homecoming involves a glass of something, a plate of something, and a house filled to the brim with music. He turns the system on loud until atmosphere is achieved. I smell garlic and butter and old house when I walk in. Leather and antique furniture meet my eye line; oriental carpets feel familiar under my feet.
I live a quasi-vegetarian life in Austin, particularly since discovering a pork and beef allergy just a few weeks ago. Even so, there is something lovely about coming home to my dad’s carnivorous palate and enjoying the indulgence. When I arrived last Thursday, late into the evening, I expected to find just that.
Instead, I am deeply touched discover a fully vegetarian meal, in Corningware, still warm, the condensation clinging to the top of the glass lid, on my dad’s dining room table, ready for my arrival. No pork or beef? No problem.
It is late, but it no longer feels like it. My dad serves us handmade portobello mushroom ravioli with shiitake mushrooms thrown in, homemade tomato sauce made with San Marzanos, all covered in freshly grated parmagiano. He pours us red wine in sterling silver cups and we take shots of cold vodka to take the edge off. A bag of Milanos is passed around at the end, we drink more wine, I feel life come back to my body. I am home. This is home.
I sleep better than I have in weeks. The weekend’s events surround an old friend’s wedding, so before we know it, Marc and I are already saying our goodbyes under the unseasonably warm sun, boarding a plane back to Austin.
Last night, I channeled my dad. While Marc is at an after-work happy hour, I pour a cold glass of white wine, crank the music up loud (“And I Love Her” by the Beatles starts me off) and proceed to make a whole mess of food.
I attempt to make a meal from two dishes, one French and one Spanish, all the while staying true to my body’s vegetarian tastes. The first dish, a kind of Spanish ragu made from chickpeas, spinach, tomato sauce, fried bread and smoked paprika, is an adaptation pulled from smitten kitchen. I go heavy on the garlic and the paprika, I salt the dish at every single stage, I use the highest quality tomato sauce you can buy. The most important step I found, however, is to let the mixture sit for as long as possible on low heat. The chickpeas need time to soak up the flavors; the cumin and the paprika need time to work their magic against the acidity of the tomatoes.
While the chickpeas simmer, I start my tartines. I make a simple béchamel sauce with butter, flour and whole milk and stir in dollops of Dijon mustard off heat at the end. I sauté the mushrooms over a medium flame with thyme, rosemary, several glugs of olive oil and fresh garlic, and a splash of white wine at the end, keeping the heat on until the alcohol leaves behind its sweet flavor. After spreading the Dijon béchamel on fresh slices of crusty ciabatta, the mushrooms are piled on top, along with tiny shreds of Romano cheese (the recipe called for gruyere, but an Italian fridge is an Italian fridge).
The flavors are insane. So distinctive, yet so complementary. The chickpeas hold their shape against the thick sauce and salty spinach to provide just enough texture. The sauce is magically complex and somehow incredibly and authentically Spanish.
A quick broil on the tartines leaves a warm, chewy bite with just the right amount of crunch. The béchamel binds itself to the savory mushrooms beautifully, the flavors so familiar and pleasant and comforting on the palate.
As I pull the tartines out of the oven, I imagine what it would be like to eat them by myself, to cook all of this for no one but me. When Marc comes through the door, I feel a warmth inside me not dissimilar to that I feel every time my parents welcome me home.
After we eat and savor each delectable bite, I sit on the couch and fall into heavy sobs. I cry for my dad, a brilliant cook who so rarely gets to cook for anyone. I cry for my childhood, that old house, for the miles and miles that separate me from people I love with every fiber of me. I cry because what I love so much about going home to Ohio wouldn’t exist if I lived there. I cry because I love Austin, I love my life, and for the fact that sometimes you just can’t have it all.
I’ll never stop trying to find a balance. In the meantime, making food makes me feel closer to what (and who) is closest to me, and that’s a damn good start.